Blame abounds in 'botched' spy case ...

Washington's warp-speed ways fuel 'gotcha' culture.

In a case that lawmakers bluntly characterize as "botched," nearly every institution that came in contact with the Wen Ho Lee case made mistakes - including Congress itself.

The media are accused of fanning the flames, prodding officials to take premature action against the Taiwanese-born nuclear scientist. US government prosecutors brought charges some say they could never have proved. Then there's Congress, perhaps overzealous in trying to force the Justice and Energy Departments to account for reported "leaks" of US nuclear-weapons technology to China.

"There's plenty of blame to go around," says Steven Aftergood, director of the Project for Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.

Partly driving this string of events, which this month resulted in Dr. Lee's release from prison after he pleaded guilty to one of 59 felony charges against him, is today's high-speed culture in Washington. Jumping on issues for the purpose of public grandstanding or partisan advantage has become the modus operandi in the nation's capital, say many longtime political observers, sometimes to the detriment of sound public policy.

"There used to be more time to step back from things - a cooling-off period," says Stephen Hess, an analyst at the Brookings Institution here. "This is part of that phenomenon, which is relatively new, called the permanent campaign. They [the Washington elite] just never let go of all of the habits that are connected with campaigning, as opposed to governance."

As the Senate concluded its first round of hearings on the case yesterday, no one, it seems, escapes culpability for a case that imploded. With Lee free after time served, the fingerpointing is under way.

Among those who share the blame, say analysts, are:

The prosecution. Perhaps the greatest mistake, says Mr. Aftergood, was that the prosecution, after claiming that the classified material Lee downloaded onto portable tapes represented the "crown jewels" of American nuclear science, declined to thoroughly pursue that charge in court. The government, in fact, was blindsided when Lee's lawyers presented testimony to the contrary.

Another mistake, observers say, was that prosecutors charged Lee with intent to aid a foreign power. According to this week's testimony from Attorney General Janet Reno and FBI Director Louis Freeh, there is no evidence that Lee passed secrets to a foreign government.

Congress. Mr. Hess and others maintain that an overzealous Congress applied too much pressure on Ms. Reno and Energy Secretary Bill Richardson to get moving on Chinese espionage. In March 1999, when Mr. Richardson ordered that Lee be fired from his 20-year job at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, the FBI had no evidence that the scientist had passed secrets to China. Grounds for dismissal were minor infractions, though the week after Lee was fired, investigators discovered he had downloaded roughly 400,000 pages of classified nuclear documents.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania vigorously disputes this view. The senator, who headed a task force looking into this case, says the fault lies with the Justice Department, "which does not treat espionage cases, or potential espionage cases, seriously enough." In an interview with the Monitor, he faulted Reno for initially turning down a request for government surveillance of Lee.

Local officials. According to a Washington Post report, lead prosecutor Robert Gorence (who was later removed because of a personal indiscretion) told friends his single greatest mistake was not insisting that Lee receive more humane treatment. Indeed, a firestorm of criticism has arisen over Lee's solitary confinement, the dim lightbulb constantly on in his cell, and the shackles he wore outside his cell.

The treatment has contributed to claims of racial profiling, which Reno and Freeh this week strenuously denied. Freeh also said officials went out of their way to accommodate Lee, including providing

special food, a Mandarin-speaking FBI agent, exercise, and building a secure facility in the courthouse where he could consult with his lawyers.

The federal judge. Akhil Amar, a constitutional scholar at Yale Law School, wonders why the judge agreed to solitary confinement for Lee without more deeply probing the government's claim that he posed a severe national security risk. "He was obliged to tell prosecutors, 'Show me the money,' and should not have taken their word for it," says Mr. Amar.

Ideally, this will lead to self-examination by the various players, because their credibility is at stake, says Aftergood. But as he points out, Lee is also responsible because, "when all is said and done, he did commit a felony."

Indeed, that's the point Freeh and Reno made this week as they explained that the purpose of the plea bargain is to get Lee to disclose what he's done with missing tapes. Investigators have found that, not only did Lee download the information onto tapes - and make copies of those tapes - but he took elaborate steps to remove classification markings, cover his tracks, and regain entry once his clearance had been removed.

"Dr. Lee is no hero," said Reno. "He is no absent-minded professor. He is a felon."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.